You don’t have to be a military strategist on the order of Sun Tzu or Carl von Clausewitz to understand this: It is a bad idea to fund your enemy’s war effort.
But every time we fill the tanks of our cars with gasoline we put money in the pockets of terrorists intent on killing Americans.
When will our elected officials finally grapple with this problem? Maybe now. In his State of the Union Speech this week, President Bush sounded serious about “diversifying” American’s energy supply, about developing an energy policy that does not leave Americans interminably at the mercy of such regimes as those in Tehran and Caracas. And in Congress legislation already has been introduced that could at least begin to reduce the economic, political and military power of Middle Eastern oil.
More on that in a moment. First, let’s be clear: Oil is different from other products. If the French offend me, I can buy wine from Australia instead. If the price of beef goes up, I can dine on lamb. But oil enjoys a kind of monopoly: If you drive a car, you have no choice but to buy fuels refined from petroleum, a resource most abundant in countries where hostility toward Americans runs high. Currently, we spend about $150 million a day on oil from the Persian Gulf and more than $70 million a day on oil from Venezuela.
Two obvious solutions: First, develop liquid fuels from other resources and, secondly, develop vehicles that can run on something other than liquid fuels.
In fact, such alternative fuels and vehicles already exist. A bill has been introduced in Congress — with broad bipartisan support — to get both moving down the road: The DRIVE Act (for Dependence Reduction through Innovation in Vehicles and Energy) is based on an energy security blueprint drafted by Set America Free, which former CIA director Jim Woolsey calls “a coalition of tree huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, cheap hawks and evangelicals.” (Full disclosure: Both Woolsey and I are among its members.)
If passed into law, your next new car could be a Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV): It would be able to utilize not just gasoline but also a variety of non-petroleum liquid fuels. That would provide an incentive to the private sector to produce those fuels and make them widely available. Imagine if you could pull up to a pump and choose between conventional gas and similarly priced alternative fuels guaranteed not to fund terrorists. Which would you choose?
How much more will such cars cost? Less than $150 — a small sacrifice for the war effort. And you’d actually pay less than that once tax incentives were included in the deal. Also think of the FFV as a safety feature, akin to seatbelts and airbags, except that in this case you’ll be buying national security rather than protection in the event of a collision.
In addition, DRIVE would provide incentives for both manufacturers and purchasers of “plug-in hybrids,” cars that can run on electricity, a source of energy not dependent on petroleum. A commuter traveling less than about 40 miles a day would plug in his car at night and go months without re-filling his tank — and when he did it could be with an alternative fuel.
What might those fuels be? In Brazil, an increasing number of cars run on ethanol made from sugar, a crop that grows easily in tropical climates. Currently, the American tariff on such fuel is 54 cents a gallon — compared to zero cents a gallon for Middle Eastern oil. I would hope we could find a few politicians courageous enough to stand up to the lobbyists who favor discriminating against poor South American farmers while subsidizing Saudi billionaires and fire-breathing Iranian mullahs.
Other ideas that Congress should consider: The tar sands of Alberta contain as much energy as the deserts of Arabia. The Canadian Coalition for Democracies is pushing for a U.S.-Canadian partnership that would exploit the tar sands for the benefit of both countries on a long-term basis.
Let’s be clear: Oil will be a valuable resource for decades to come and American will not be “energy independent” any time soon. But we’d hand over less money to terrorist masters if we put an end to oil’s monopoly, and diminished the dominance of oil controlled by despots who conspire to destroy us.
We have the scientific, technological and entrepreneurial abilities. What’s most needed now is the political will.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)